The Australian War Memorial is unique among the world’s war memorials, because it is both a collection and a building and the building is both a museum and a shrine. The Memorial was founded to commemorate the 60,000 Australians who died in the 1914-1918 war and to tell the story of Australians in war - thus providing a setting in which visitors would gain an understanding of battlefields physically remote from Australia. Part of the Memorial’s role is to commemorate significant historical events, such as Remembrance Day and ANZAC Day, and to inform present and future generations of the place of these events in Australia’s history.
C.E.W. Bean, who served as official war correspondent to the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) both at Gallipoli and on the Western Front, conceived the idea of a unique monument to Australia’s war dead. As he watched the AIF in action in the terrible battles of the Western Front, Bean - who later edited the Official History of Australia in the 1914-1918 War - determined that their sacrifices and achievements should not be forgotten. He decided to establish a museum that would both commemorate the deaths of the men he had known and convey to Australians how and why they died.
The Australian Government agreed to Bean’s proposal and in 1917 announced that it would create a memorial museum. AIF troops were asked to assist in gathering relics and thousands of items were assembled at collection depots to be brought back to Australia. The Australians’ quirky sense of humour was revealed when even German prisoners were labelled ‘to be consigned to the Australian War Museum’. Despite the enthusiasm, the Memorial was a long time being built. Its foundation stone was laid on ANZAC Day 1919, but work on the building was delayed by the Depression and the Second World War and it was not opened until Armistice Day 1941. In the meantime, a semi-permanent exhibition opened in Melbourne and was later transferred to Sydney. In both cities it was visited by many thousands of Australians.
After the 1939-1945 war, the charter of the Memorial was extended to encompass all wars in which Australians have died.
Today, the Memorial’s collection is divided into the following areas: Art (the Memorial has an extensive art collection), Military Heraldry and Technology, (including flags, uniforms, guns, aeroplanes and so on), Photo Sound and Film, and Printed and Written Records. To support its activities, the Memorial employs a great range of professional staff, including historians, conservators, educators, security officers, technicians and administrative staff.
In addition to its normal collection and research activities, the Memorial is now engaged on a project to redevelop all its exhibition galleries; this will take many years to complete. The Memorial’s primary focus remains, however, the commemoration of Australia’s war dead.
To enable the young people of Australia to understand what the commemoration of Australia’s war dead means, the Education and Visitors section offers a range of programs. These are for young people visiting the Memorial as well as an outreach program called ‘Memorial Box’ for those who find it difficult to get to Canberra.
As well as document studies for senior students, the education section has a ‘hands-on’ Discovery Room which is immensely popular. Young people are encouraged to try to imagine what life was like during the First World War by exploring a recruitment office, a First World War trench, a living room back home in Australia, trying on items of uniform, and even, if they know the name of a serving relative from that time, a chance to research family history using microfiche. Open to the public in the afternoon, the family research area is very popular with older visitors.
In the Research Centre visitors can also use microfiche as well as microfilm to research their families, or generally use the extensive research tools available in the Centre. These include a computerised photograph retrieval service as well as private and printed records and access to sound and film records.
‘To assist Australians to remember, interpret and understand the Australian experience of war and its enduring impact on Australian society’. This is the mission of the Australian War Memorial. The Memorial fulfils this mission in a variety of ways. For young Australians, access to the records from wartime is essential. The Memorial will continue in its quest to make its holdings accessible and meaningful to all Australians, but particularly to the young.
Information courtesy of the Australian War Memorial